Steve Hewins started his own travel agency in his apartment after graduating from college, and then moved to Commercial Street in 1982. After 24 years, he sold the agency to AAA Northern New England and then went to work for the auto club, running that aspect of the business for six years. Hewins said he was asked to fill in as interim director for Portland’s Downtown District last summer and then was named executive director in November. There are 604 property owners in the district who pay an annual assessment, providing an annual budget of about $750,000. The district has three full-time employees and also hires downtown visitor guides in the summer.
Q: What is the Downtown District and how is it funded?
A: A lot of people don’t understand how PDD is funded and who we are. We’re funded by a surcharge that property owners in the district pay. We’re not funded by the city and taxes and we really represent the people who own property in the downtown district. The focus we’re on now is developing the Congress Street area. It’s sort of like reinventing Portland’s original Main Street, being reinvented around the restaurants and the arts. I don’t think we’re seeing Old Port Part II, what we’re seeing is its own identity develop and fixing things that need to be fixed. We don’t spill over into other parts, like everything east of Franklin Street, such as India Street.
Q: What’s your chief focus?
A: The major issue that we focus on is keeping the place clean and safe. We try to make sure that, at this time of year, we get snow removed from sidewalks and parking places, contracting with the city for the extra services, so that people have access to businesses. There’s also the safety aspect, to make sure we have adequate police patrols and that sometimes means getting into social service issues, with homelessness and panhandling that can detract in some ways from the vibrancy of downtown.
Q: Is safety a big issue downtown?
A: It’s kind of a question of keeping our reputation (for safety) intact. It’s the issue of safety and the perception of safety, as well. There was that incident (in November) of the production manager for Elvis Costello, he got attacked almost outside our office (on Congress Street) and that was an issue of overly aggressive panhandling. It’s not just people from London or California; we want people from Buxton and North Yarmouth who come to Portland to shop and eat to feel safe.
Q: Portland has developed a national reputation for its restaurants. How does that factor into attracting people to visit downtown?
A: It’s a known thing that people travel for things like food. And we wouldn’t have the number of restaurants we have or the diversity of the restaurants but for the people who travel here. A city of 60,000 or so couldn’t support all these restaurants. We try to encourage people to look into what else Portland offers – the cultural aspect, the creative Portland side, whether it’s the Portland Museum of Art or the Maine Historical Society or the other buildings and culture and the eclectic shopping that we have here. Those are all additional hooks to retain people here. We don’t have the chain stores and that positions us well for competing with the Maine Mall and the off-peninsula strip shopping centers.
Q: What is the district’s role beyond safety and cleanliness?
A: We do a lot of the big events and our focus going forward is on those big events and to partner with others on them. For instance, we do the Old Port Festival and we’re looking to enhance that and take some of the stuff that we’ve learned and re-set some of the things were doing. We also did the Christmas tree-lighting and things like First Friday Art Walk, helping with the idea to close Congress Street for that this month. That couldn’t have happened without the PDD, so I see us doing more of those collaborative-type of events that draw a lot of people and publicize Portland. We don’t have a huge staff or budget, but we’re going to focus on events where we can partner with other organizations.
Q: What are your plans for the Old Port Festival?
A: We’re still keeping the family atmosphere, but we also want to celebrate the things that are Portland and highlight the businesses of Portland and change some other aspects – it might be a multiple-day event.
Q: There are a lot more hotels downtown than there were even a decade ago. Is that an asset, or are you worried about a lot of those rooms going vacant from January to June every year?
A: You used to come to Portland and stay out by exit 48, so it’s great to have hotels right downtown.
I know the hoteliers are concerned about filling the rooms year-round, but filling the rooms in February and March and developing the visitor industry into a year-round industry is critical to Portland. Maine has a seasonality to it, but Portland has a potential to bridge that seasonality and become a hub for visitors to come stay here in Portland and maybe use it as a base to go to North Conway one day or Boothbay another day. The hoteliers are extremely bullish on the next 10 years in Portland and we have to focus hard on that year-round aspect. It’s going to be driven by people who need to fill seats in their restaurants and rooms in their hotels all year and we want to build a platform for that.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: